Rubaru Roshni Review: The Documentary Convinces Us that Everyone, Even Criminals, Deserve a Second Chance

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Rubaru Roshni Review: The Documentary Convinces Us that Everyone, Even Criminals, Deserve a Second Chance

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Somewhere in the middle of the documentary Rubaru Roshni, a farmer Samandar Singh uproots a developing shrub of onion. “This won’t grow,” he says before breaking the stem at the base and planting it again in the wet earth. It is a moment that metaphorically encapsulates the strange and overwhelming world of this film – a world of second chances.

Produced and narrated by Aamir Khan, the palette of Rubaru Roshni refuses to abdicate hope. Violence, the film says, has as much a forgivable history as it stands the chance to have a forgivable future. Violence need not repeat itself, so to speak. Given the popularity of vengeful cinema – Simmba, Uri – and the strain of hateful politics bearing down on us, Rubaru Roshni is that rare film that advocates and asserts the novelty of forgiveness; a film that, for a change, asks the viewer to show a spine, instead of spite.

Now streaming on Hotstar, the film was released on January 26. Shot by Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal, it presents three unconnected stories of crime and remorse, the first, perhaps its most potent. Titled “Orphan and the Convict”, it tells the story of the murder of Delhi politician Lalit Maken and his wife in 1985. Bhatkal speaks to Maken’s surviving daughter Avantika, and the man who murdered her parents, Ranjit Singh Gill (Kukki). As Khan’s voice narrates the sequence of events, Bhatkal juxtaposes interviews of Avantika and Gill, one after the other. Cumulatively, it becomes unnerving to lose sense of moral judgement, to struggle to hedge bets between clear heroes and clear villains. These stories have none. In one scene Bhatkal asks Gill what he missed most during his 14 years in American prison. “Freedom,” he says, one-toned, so assured of the price he has paid. Avantika, at one point admits, “Had someone asked me when I was 12, what I wanted to grow up to be, I would probably have said I wanted to kill the man who murdered my parents.”

Rubaru Roshni doesn’t just wrap remorse as a sentiment that the viewer must consume, as drama over two hours. It goes deeper. Gill recalls how Maken’s wife “leaped” over her husband when he shot him. Avantika talks about how she has been seen as an orphan all her life. Not just detail, Bhatkal’s socialist eye manages to unpeel layers of the closely worn class and caste systems of the country as well.

Staying true to its template, the film’s three stories naturally end in cathartic absolution.

In her second chapter, Bhatkal tells the story of the murder of Sister Rani Maria by the farmer Samandar Singh. Handicapped by poverty and egged on by scheming landlords (on the pretext of religious conversion), Singh lashed out at the unarmed Maria in a moving bus in 1995. The film doesn’t hide the fact that he brutally dragged her out of the vehicle and stabbed her 52 times. Bhatkal even manages to extract from her killer a recount of what it felt like to murder someone. “Ek baar jo maine usko maara, main rukk hi nahi paaya. Koi aur bachane aata toh shayad usko bhi maar deta main. (Once I stabbed her, I couldn’t stop. Had someone stepped up to protect her, I would have killed them to),” he says, in a dizzyingly candid admission of his paranoia. Singh claims later in the film, “It is no point being human, if you behave like an animal, as I did.”

Bhatkal’s third, and perhaps, the weakest of the three chapters tells the story of American national Kia Scherr who lost her husband and daughter in the Mumbai attacks of 2008. Devoid of the agency that the perpetrators’ voice brings to the first two chapters (although the film does offer grainy footage of Ajmal Kasab’s intoxicated confessions), this part feels thin and fails to elevate itself above familiar formats of television news. Though nuanced in context – terrorism – it would have best served as the middle of the film.

That said Bhatkal has done well to draw stories from three different decades of violence, and a diverse geography – from Punjab to the US. In a world where true- crime documentaries mine thrill from blood and gore, Rubaru Roshni performs a post-mortem like no other, on the carcass of violence. A lesson, Bhatkal finds, has been learned on both sides of the narrative.

Staying true to its template, the film’s three stories naturally end in cathartic absolution. Avantika forgives Kukki, Maria’s sister forgives Samandar, and Scherr finds purpose in training people to do the same. If I had to pick a bone with this film, it would be Aamir Khan who precedes the film with a monologue that intends to cajole the viewer into submitting their intestines for a taste of Aamiresque pain. His narration is timid and surprisingly dramatic, as if trying to make the point – “I can feel this pain, no really, I can.” Khan’s needless presence and his now famous attitude of urgent compassion derails well before it can help the film in any way. Largely because Rubaru Roshni stands on its own, as an atypically arresting Indian film that demands much more than the platitudes of violence and revenge we are familiar as a nation with. It demands the courage to forgive.